Do you mind if I ask you about… “The Kiss?” Louise Brealey interrupts, before bursting out laughing. Clearly it’s a question she’s been asked before.
Brealey is best known as Molly Hooper in TV’s Sherlock, the timid pathologist hopelessly besotted with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baker Street detective, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The drama is a global phenomenon, its leading man a sex symbol and that kiss – when Molly’s dreams momentarily came true – a YouTube sensation.
In fact, there were four kisses. “I milked it!” she admits. “Afterwards, Ben and I watched it back on the monitor.” She adopts a Hollywood drawl. “‘Yup, that’s pretty hot.’ And of course it went completely crackers when the show came out. I got 7,000 Twitter followers within five minutes of that kiss airing. It had doubled by the time the episode ended.”
While the odd tweet seethed with jealousy, most were a virtual pat on the back. Brealey believes that’s because “Cumberbitches” – as members of the Cumberbatch appreciation society like to call themselves – can identify with Molly. “She’s unthreatening.
She’s an ordinary woman experiencing the agony of unrequited love, and most of us have been there.”
Sherlockco-creator Steven Moffat never intended Molly to be a permanent fixture, but Brealey’s performance persuaded him otherwise. Molly has also become a central character in fan fiction, with thousands of stories posted online. Brealey has only read one. “I just thought I was reading your average story and it turned into straddling and nipple-piercing!”
Growing up in Northampton, she was an academic child, the only one of her siblings that her parents could afford to send to “posh school”. So, while they left the local comprehensive at 16, she read history at Cambridge – a late applicant, it turns out. “When my dad found out I hadn’t applied, he hit the roof. I tried to explain to him I didn’t want to be an Oxbridge reject, but he said: ‘Tough s**t!’ And quite rightly, as it goes.”
Cambridge’s comedy troupe, Footlights, scared her, though. “I felt like it was incredibly cliquey and I just didn’t have the confidence to put myself forward.” She crept out of her first and last audition upon discovering the girl next in line was the daughter of a drama teacher. It was several years before she took the acting plunge, by which time she was working as a journalist. “I thought: if I don’t do this, I will wish I had.”
Brealey’s new film, Delicious (in selected cinemas and via iTunes and Amazon Prime), is about a young woman wrestling with bulimia. Having watched friends waste away, Brealey welcomed the opportunity to put the issue on the big screen.
“I get a lot of tweets from young women who struggle with body image, who self-harm, who have eating disorders. We hide mental ill-health issues, and it’s ludicrous. One in four of us is going to have a mental-health issue and yet we pretend it’s not happening.” Young women probably confide in Brealey because she’s refreshingly candid about her own body-image battles. “I wish I could have back the hours, days and weeks that I wasted worrying about my ‘big’ thighs,” she confessed to her 150,000 Twitter followers. “Don’t do it, kids.”
While filming delicious, Brealey was also appearing as the world’s most beautiful woman – Helen of Troy – in a play in Notting Hill, which entailed dropping her towel in front of 75 strangers every night. She wrote honestly and very movingly about how the prospect of public nudity petrified her: the hours she spent on a pilates machine, the physical insecurities that kept her awake at night – cellulite, grubby-looking knees, stretch marks, the skin condition psoriasis.
“I had hundreds of letters including one from a girl who has psoriasis saying: ‘Thank you for saying that you have it because I’ve always thought that I couldn’t possibly be beautiful.’ I was in tears reading it because I remember being her age and thinking: ‘Right, no one will want to marry me.’ I was 14 when I got psoriasis and it was all over me. I was like a crust.” She lifts her shirt to reveal red, flakey patches. “So much for Helen of Troy!”
As a feminist, Brealey feels conflicted: she yearns to see ordinary, imperfect bodies on billboards but works in an industry that perpetuates the problem. “Telly beautiful,” she calls it. “I have often been in situations where I don’t get put up for a job because I’m not pretty enough. That’s the way the industry rates people. What are you going to do? Well, you can say, ‘I think this is bollocks.’ And I do.”